More than two dozen Buffalo police officers and firefighters streamed into New York City on their own time last weekend to volunteer for a few days at the site of the World Trade Center terrorist attack.
They were able to satisfy a desire to show their solidarity with fellow cops and firefighters and give of themselves.
It was horrible and beautiful, all at once. They witnessed disquieting scenes of ruination and towering demonstrations of courage.
"We were standing in the bucket brigade, and we looked down and saw a woman's shoe at our feet," said Northwest District Officer Tom Cino, who was with fellow Officer Eddie Lopez. "There were parts of paperbacks, file folders and charred letterheads all over. It was obvious these things were in people's offices."
Cino and Lopez were part of a contingent of nine officers who drove to New York Sunday and returned Tuesday. About 20 firefighters also made the journey by train.
"It was staggering. It was scary. You were apprehensive going in there because you didn't know what to expect, and we've seen a lot over the years," said Buffalo Fire Lt. Dan Corcoran.
But once they settled into the painstaking task of sifting through the rubble of the World Trade Center towers, something amazing happened.
"We felt great. We were doing something to help," Corcoran said.
"It was a job that had to be done, but it was appalling what happened. You'd expect casualties at a military installation, but this was civilian, in a business and tourist area," said Engine 3 Firefighter Jim Spencer, who helped remove the rubble.
For Northwest District Police Officers Cheryl Slomka and Jamie Miller, the enormity of last week's catastrophe left them with haunting images of a war zone guarded by the military and FBI.
"It was absolutely amazing to see firefighters lowered in cages into craters," Miller said.
Then on Sunday night, with searchlights blazing, Miller noticed a lone firefighter standing atop the rubble of one of the smaller collapsed buildings, spraying it with water.
The hope was that the water would trickle down through the debris into pockets where survivors might be trapped. With more than a week having elapsed since the terrorists crashed planes into the towers, drinking water would be needed, if by some miraculous chance someone was still alive, Miller said.
Slomka says the images in newspapers and on television do not begin to show the full dimension of the devastation.
"We were taken to an underground parking ramp beneath Building 6 across the street from the twin towers," she said. "The dust was piled inches high on the parked cars and there was a crater six stories deep in the ramp where the building had collapsed. You just knew nobody would survive that, and you just prayed they made it out before it happened."
Outside, mountains of crushed buildings dwarfed rescue equipment.
"These huge cranes and dump trucks looked like little Tonka toys," Slomka said.
Walking away from the site, a construction worker shouted "Run, run!" The wind had kicked up and shards of glass were flying from broken window panes. The off-duty officers ran for cover, escaping injury.
"It was like being in hell, the end of the world," Slomka said.
More overpowering than the physical destruction and hazards at every step was the unseen mountains of human grief.
"A mother of three children all under the age of 10 came up to me and said her husband was missing. She said she didn't know how she was going to get through this," said Miller, who is also the mother of three young children.
"I told her 'You're going to carry on, even though there will be days you don't want to,' " Miller recalled.
Optimism was not always easy. The smell of death was in the air.
A few blocks away, approximately 30 refrigerated tractor-trailers were serving as a temporary morgue.
"We could smell the bodies. As police officers, we knew that smell," Slomka said.
Still, there were some heartwarming moments, brought on by an outpouring of gratitude.
"At one point, we were being escorted by a woman who works on Broadway shows to a restaurant, and she was telling passers-by 'these police officers came all the way from Buffalo to help us.'
"Out of the 13 years I've worked as a police officer, this was one of the most fulfilling times because of the thanks and appreciation. It was heartfelt," Slomka said. "We cried a lot down there."
Rescue 1 Firefighter Jack Regan says that since his return, people are constantly approaching him and asking how it was to be there, working at ground zero.
"I still think about it all day long. This was an attack on America and everything we believe in," he said.
On Thursday, another contingent of 12 off-duty Buffalo police officers and firefighters headed to New York City to work through the weekend on a bucket-brigade detail. Among them was Deputy Police Commissioner Mark E. Blankenberg.